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End of democracy in Iraqi Kurdistan?

End of democracy in Iraqi Kurdistan?

The fate of Masoud Barzani’s presidency has put the nascent democracy of Iraqi Kurdistan to its biggest test yet, writes Salah Nasrawi

Ali Hama Saleh, a member of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Parliament for Gorran, or the Movement for Change, seems to have followed the wrong path in defending his party’s platform of reform. He has chosen to defy Kurdistan’s strongman, Iraqi Kurdistan’s President Masoud Barzani, who is making a bid to cling to power, by criticising his foot-dragging in giving the autonomous region a constitution.

Last month, Saleh wrote an open letter to Barzani whose Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and family members have dominated Kurdish politics for more than half a century, urging him to quickly fix the “presidency problem through dialogue between political groups.”

“Delay,” he wrote on his Facebook page, “will result in dire consequences.”

The reform-minded lawmaker and anti-graft campaigner also blasted the Region’s government led by Barzani’s nephew and son-in-law Nechirvan Barzani for widespread corruption and the mismanagement of financial affairs.

In his post, Saleh detailed the waste of billions of dollars received from the Baghdad government’s budgetary allocations over 12 years, revenues from selling oil from the Kurdish Region, local taxes and loans from foreign banks.

Thousands of loyalists and cronies had been receiving pensions and salaries from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) without being eligible for payments, while the government had claimed it did not have enough cash to pay the salaries of its civil servants, Saleh wrote.

“Who is responsible for the financial situation of Kurdistan, and why has it reached this stage,” he asked.

In a nascent democracy critical views by an MP would be tolerated, but not in Iraqi Kurdistan where Saleh’s call has provoked a strong response from Barzani’s supporters who have sought to punish him for crossing a red line by challenging Kurdistan’s leader.

When Saleh attended the parliament a few days later the wolves were circling waiting for him. Two KDP members attacked Saleh as he tried to step into the session.

As the assembly erupted in protest, members dragged the assailants out of the chaotic hall. Speaker Youssef Mohamed also ordered the session suspended, fearing an outbreak of skirmishes between rival members.

But the assault on Saleh soon resonated across Kurdistan, renewing a debate about Kurdish democracy, a much-trumpeted achievement since the autonomous region was established as a federal region of Iraq following the US-led invasion in 2003.

Almost 12 years later that cherished narrative of Kurdish democracy is giving way to frustration and disillusionment among Iraqi Kurds who have been watching their government turning into another Middle Eastern autocracy.

The brawl in the Kurdish parliament has underlined how an iron fist is being used to silence opposition groups seeking reform. But it has also thrown Barzani’s controversial presidency wide open as he maneuvers to stay in power despite legal and constitutional restraints.

The wrangle over Barzani’s presidency has intensified ahead of the end of his term in office this summer amid demands by the opposition for a constitution for the Kurdish Region which sets out the rules for the election of the president of Kurdistan by the Region’s parliament.

The document, drafted in 2009, has never been put to public referendum for ratification after Barzani declined to sign it. It states that the president of the Kurdistan Region “may be re-elected for a second term on the date this constitution enters into force.”

The opposition argues that the draft constitution was rushed through by the parliament at the time by a caretaker government controlled by the KDP and the PUK, another Kurdish party, which share power in the region.

According to the opposition some of the constitution’s articles were changed within a matter of days and presented for endorsement by the parliament when one third of its members were not present.

It also claims that among the articles that were changed were those that made the Iraqi Kurdistan Region a presidential system, whereas the original document drafted by a special committee had stated that the region enjoyed “a parliamentary political system”.

Under the controversial draft constitution, the president wields absolute power, including the power to declare a state of emergency, issue decrees that have the force of law, dissolve the parliament and dismiss ministers.

Now the opposition wants the constitution to be sent back to the parliament to amend items related to the president’s power and reinforce the assembly’s powers, including its right to elect the president.

Barzani was first elected for a four-year term in 2005 by the parliament. In 2009, he was re-elected by a public election according to a law that stipulated that Iraqi Kurdistan’s president be directly elected by the people.

The opposition says that law contradicted the draft constitution and insists that Barzani has now served the two terms allowed in the document.

However, Barzani’s supporters argue that the term limits are not retrospective, so Barzani is eligible for re-election.

Nevertheless, when Barzani completed his two terms in office in July 2013, the parliament passed a law extending his tenure for two years. The move, pushed through by the KDP and its coalition partner the PUK, was rejected by the opposition parties and prompted fist-fights and the throwing of water bottles in the parliament.

Many of Barzani’s critics believe his insistence on holding a referendum has more to do with his autocratic tendencies and his intention to stay in power than it does with any concern for democratic politics.

To stave off a deeper confrontation over Barzani’s presidency, the region’s parliamentary speaker has started discussions with the main political groups to find the best way out of its worst political standoff since 2003.

But the crisis talks have remained inconclusive.

While the PUK’s Deputy Secretary-General Kusrat Rasoul said his party, which has 18 seats in parliament, needs more time to make a decision on “such a critical issue,” Gorran Party leader Nawshirwan Mustafa said his movement, which has 24 seats in parliament, still wants the election of the region’s president to be held by the parliament.

He also reiterated his movement’s demand for the ratification of the draft constitution.

The Kurdistan Islamic Union, the fourth-largest group in the parliament with 10 seats, has so far refrained from taking a public stance on the crisis. But Ali Bapir, leader of the Islamic Group in Kurdistan, which has six seats in parliament, said his party would support another extension for Barzani if other factions backed the move.

Barzani, who on Sunday chaired a meeting of KDP leaders to discuss the crisis, has remained tight-lipped about the controversy. Following the meeting, a statement said the party leadership had made an “appropriate decision” but did not give details.

Insiders say Barzani may be trying to settle the dispute outside the parliament in order to avoid further wrangling and public embarrassment.

In the past, Barzani succeeded in stifling dissent either by buying off opponents or by playing for high stakes, knowing that the opposition groups were too weak to stop him from pursuing such a course of action.

Iraqi Kurdistan has long been dubbed an oasis of democracy, political stability and economic growth in violence-torn Iraq. With a multi-party electoral system that allows Kurds to go out and vote their leaders into power, technically the region is a democracy, though it has been a far from functioning one.

Many analysts believe that attempts by Barzani to stay in office through outmaneuvering the opposition and violating legal and constitutional limitations will turn democracy in Iraqi Kurdistan into farce.

The region’s latest political crisis also comes at a crucial time for Iraqi Kurds who face formidable challenges, including the war with the Islamic State (IS) terror group and a financial crunch that has forced it to suspend its ambitious plans to become a haven for business.

In an interview with the American PBS TV channel recently, Barzani acknowledged that the war with IS had delayed the Kurdish bid for independence from the rest of Iraq, a goal he has been vehemently pursuing.